Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, backed by community leaders, addresses local concerns outside a Benton Harbor church.
THE BLADE/ANDY MORRISON
BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm said yesterday she will appoint a team from her office and this impoverished city of about 11,000 to see what impact the state can have in turning around its economic and educational fortunes.
Ms. Granholm made the comments after emerging from a nearly two-hour meeting with city and community leaders at the Brotherhood of All Nations Church of God and Christ.
The church is about a mile from the site where motorcyclist Terrance Devon Shurn crashed after a police chase early Monday. His death sparked riots Monday and Tuesday nights that destroyed six homes by fire and damaged many vehicles.
City and Berrien County officials have watched Benton Harbor under a state of emergency since Monday.
More than 200 Michigan State Police troopers and other authorities lined East Empire Avenue last evening to keep the peace for a second consecutive night. About 40 state patrol cars cruised the streets along with armored vehicles.
Ms. Granholm said she attended the afternoon meeting to listen to community leaders. She said she hopes to include people at the meeting on her “reconciliation team.”
She spoke to reporters at the residential church. Many neighbors came out of their homes and filled the church's small parking lot while the news conference was in progress.
“It was a painful meeting because people spoke and told it like it was,” Ms. Granholm said. “There are many, many people of goodwill in Benton Harbor and Berrien County. This is the beginning of a new day in Benton Harbor.”
She stressed that rebuilding Benton Harbor, with its high unemployment rate and failing school system, will be a partnership between the state and the community.
She said the damage to the image of Benton Harbor and Michigan since the riots can be overcome and repaired, but the violence in the city must end.
“Violence is the top concern of all of us,” Ms. Granholm said. “I'd like to thank the ministers and law enforcement for their efforts. Violence will not accomplish anything.”
John Potts, vice president of YouthWorks, a multidenom-inational organization that works with children in the East Empire neighborhood, walked the area with counselor Kent Goodroad, and said the governor's visit was a good start in helping the healing process.
“Any positive dialogue will be helpful in moving us into the right direction,” Mr. Potts said. “Any dialogue that starts to get to the real issues will help because everyone wants something positive to come out of this.”
Others, like William Isaac, who has lived in Benton Harbor for 32 years, said Ms. Granholm's efforts likely would have little to no effect on the residents.
“People here don't care about a governor,” Mr. Isaac said while sitting in his sport utility vehicle with his wife, Yolanda. “Half of them probably didn't vote for her anyway. We've had people killed here before and she didn't care enough to show up. Nothing will happen and that's why people don't care.”
Mrs. Isaac said many people in Benton Harbor have lost hope that things will change in their city while across the river, St. Joseph continues to grow in prosperity. Downtown Benton Harbor is filled with empty storefronts and parking lots, compared to the busy streets and businesses of its next door neighbor.
Shuttered businesses surrounded one small grocery store on East Empire, a parking lot away from where Mr. Shurn died.
A Benton Township police officer chased Mr. Shurn into the town of Benton Harbor after Berrien County sheriff's deputies called off the chase after speeds exceeded 100 mph.
Mrs. Isaac said the riots were more of a symbol of longstanding frustration.
“No one listens to us here,” Mrs. Isaac said. “We complain about the lack of jobs, development, recreational facilities, and no one seems to care. People are crying out to be heard. If you don't want this to happen again, then our leaders need to start listening to the people.”
Belinda Brown expressed that message yesterday to anyone who would listen outside the Benton Harbor police department. She said her organization, BANCO, has collected 300 signatures asking for the removal of police Chief Samuel Harris.
Ms. Brown said Chief Harris, who has led the department for a little over a year, has no connection with Benton Harbor residents and doesn't support the citizens when they feel other law enforcement officials reach into the city.
“The citizens feel like they have nowhere to turn,” said Ms. Brown, standing near the entrance of the police department where Chief Harris had just concluded a news conference.
“People want to prostitute Benton Harbor for their own selfish gain, and it's time we get rid of all the crooked officials and politicians,” Ms. Brown said.
Lt. Joseph Zangaro, of the Michigan State Police, defending Chief Harris as a man of “the highest integrity,” said the chief “is the best thing that has happened to the Benton Harbor Police Department. He has added structure and made officers accountable.”
Chief Harris, an African-American who worked for over 20 years with the Chicago Police Department, said he wants to make Benton Harbor safer than it was before the riots.
“I want things to return to the way they were last week -- a nice, quiet city” Chief Harris said. “Poor, yes, but a good city to live in.”
The community affairs service division of the U.S. Justice Department met with city and community officials yesterday to lay out groundwork for conciliatory efforts.
Among the group from the Justice Department was Toledo native Diane Mitchum, who works for the Justice Department as a conciliatory specialist in Philadelphia.
Ms. Mitchum, former executive director of Toledo's Board of Community Relations, referred questions about the Justice Department's role to Sharee Freeman, the department's national community affairs director.
Ms. Freeman declined comment yesterday.